Keeping The Faith

The year is 1942. Poland is under German occupation and Moses and Helen Hiller, a young Jewish couple confined to the Krakow ghetto, know they are doomed. Somehow, Helen smuggles her only child to a Catholic couple outside the walls.

Stanley Berger was that Jewish child.

"Then she went back in to cover for me and ended up with my father in Auschwitz," says Berger.

He spent the war in hiding with Bronislaw and Josefa Jachowicz. They grew to love him as if he were their own son.

"So after the war, I continued living with them and went to church every Sunday," Berger says.

Berger had relatives in the United States, but the Jachowiczs hoped to adopt and raise him as a Catholic. They asked their priest for advice.

"Not only wouldn't he condone it but he advised them to do the right thing," says Berger.

That priest was Father Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore says the Jewish friends that were part of Karol Wojtyla's youth – and their suffering that he witnessed – would be a profound influence on the grown John Paul II.

"He grew up in a town that was probably 30 percent Jewish," says Keeler. "He came back to his hometown after the war and found that his schoolmates and his friends were no more."

Which is why it should come as no surprise that John Paul II was the first pope to visit a synagogue, the first to recognize the state of Israel and the first to treat Israel's rabbis as equals.

Forty years ago Vatican II abandoned the Church's teaching that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. But it was John Paul II who walked the walk, literally, right into Rome's main synagogue, and then later apologized for centuries of Catholic anti-Semitism.

"It was his idea to put in the Western Wall in Jerusalem the prayer asking God's forgiveness for what had been done by Christians in other ages," says Keeler.

This has been a week of assessing the pope's legacy.

"It's about sending the message that it's important for Jews and non-Jews to coexist," says Berger.

For one orthodox American Jew, the legacy is also extremely personal.
  • Joel Roberts

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